Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Gramsci and Foucault in Central Park: Environmental Hegemonies, Pedagogical Spaces and Integral State Formations

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Gramsci and Foucault in Central Park: Environmental Hegemonies, Pedagogical Spaces and Integral State Formations

Article excerpt


Gramsci's and Foucault's readings of power provide critical illuminations for understanding the linkage of state formations to urbanization and the spatial production of subjectivity. This article uses Central Park to illustrate how a combination of their insights helps to elucidate the emergence of pedagogical spaces and environmental hegemonies. I first propose a conceptual framework drawing on diverse parallels and tensions in Gramsci's Quaderni del carcere and Foucault's investigations in the 1970s, reassessed here from the vantage point of the implicit debate with Marxism in La societe punitive. Urbanization and the built environment are theorized as material apparatuses of a form of capillary power that reconfigures the relations between state, civil society and individual subjects, striving to forge common senses of space that buttress political hegemony. This analytical toolkit is then applied in a political reappraisal of Central Park, exploring the role of design in the pedagogy of subaltern spatialities and the normalization of a consensual regime of publicity. The discussion pays special attention to the park's assemblage of liberal and disciplinary spatial techniques, its connection to broader agencies beyond core state apparatuses, and their effect on the advent of an integral state formation.


Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Central Park, environmental hegemony, landscape architecture, integral state


New York City politics faced a regime crisis in the 1850s. Economic turbulence and labor unrest had increased in the previous decade, following breakneck growth after the creation of the Erie Canal. A brief period of expansion ensued, but the city was again hit by deceleration in the winter of 1854-1855 (Burrows and Wallace, 1999: 824-833; Wilentz, 2004: 363). Increasingly vulnerable to displacement in the budding metropolis, workers began to develop a more proactive strategy that aspired to take over urban policy, proscribing top-down reformism amidst corruption scandals and the dissolution of the Jacksonian party system (Bernstein, 1990: 75-78; Commons, 1918: 547-ff.; Ware, 1924: 227-240). At stake was political centrality and, with it, the capacity to delineate the contours of debate about alternative city futures. Tackling this challenge, diverse elite groups strived to revive upper-class hegemony with a program of new public facilities that fused the provision of services with an attempt to control popular strata and secure support from an embryonic middle class. In this process the bourgeoisie transformed Gotham into an urban laboratory which, in turn, altered the shape of local statehood (Scobey, 2002: 40). The built environment became a governmental device, increasingly connected to other regulatory spheres. Public space was a particularly ticklish matter. A highly contested material expression of class hierarchies, it also began to be perceived as an opportunity to articulate the political field. In that context the idea of a grand park acquired the status of an open spatial signifier, concentrating class battles to reimagine the social landscape of Manhattan. An emergent Republican reformism gradually prevailed in this struggle for meaning, envisioning Central Park as a paradigmatic piece of a new generation of public institutions promoting the formation of a cohesive American people.

This article serves a double purpose. The case of Central Park is examined to illustrate how the attempt to regulate urban order generates 'environmental hegemonies' whereby certain class projects mobilize and mediate the intersection of space, design, governance, and subjectivity to further their own interests. In order to unpack this process, I first elaborate a conceptual scaffold for understanding such declensions of power, drawing on several parallels and tensions in the work of Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault. Previous attempts to combine their insights are developed here to elucidate how urban environments are operationalized by, and in turn rearticulate, state formations when enmeshed in subject(ivat)ion processes. …

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